Like the rest of the mid-west, the town of Hammond, Indiana, spent the first part of last week plunged below zero degrees. But while some families tried to shut out the cold by turning up their heat and staying under blankets, the bitter temperatures turned deadly for the family of a man named Andre Young.
The house that Young was renting for himself, his wife, and five children had its electricity cut off since March, gas since April, and water since October, according to records obtained by the Chicago Tribune. On that fateful night last week, the family was getting by on propane space heaters. Authorities suspect that’s what sparked a flame that engulfed the house around 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday, January 8th.
According to witness accounts, Young ran in to the house to try to rescue his five children inside. He successfully saved two — a two-year-old and a six-year-old — before the flames caused serious injury and he collapsed into the snow. Another man tried to kick in the door and save the three children who remained inside, ages four, three, and seven months. But the attempts were unsuccessful; when first responders arrived, they found the three and the four-year-old holding on to one another, just feet from the door. The seven-month-old was nearby. All three children died.
Young, who remains hospitalized in critical condition, works in lawn care, according to the Tribune. His wife worked at Walmart, but most recently was a stay-at-home mom. As is the case with so many low-income families across the U.S., neighbors say the money was not enough to make the utility payments. On two occasions, he had tried to take electricity from meters hooked up to other houses.
What’s more, the house hadn’t been inspected, and Young’s landlord was ignoring inspection officials and dodging fines. The landlord was set for a court appearance this Thursday, though a lawyer for the landlord blamed Young’s family being hard to contact as the source of a delayed inspection.
“We inspect every rental property and this one was not inspected,” City Attorney Kristina Kantar told ThinkProgress. “No water, no power, no electricity, that’s bad. But we can’t tell that from the outside of the property.”
Kantar said that she sees cases like this “every day.” Sometimes people are squatters, or sometimes, like Young, they’re just behind on utilities, and no city officials realize there is a family inside. “It’s only because there’s a fire that you even know about this,” Kantar said.
There are some programs meant to assist families like Young’s. In Hammond, Indiana, the North Township Trustee administers the federal money provided by the federal low-income energy assistance program (LIHEAP). The office can give amounts between $100 and $500 starting in October to individuals and families within 125 percent of the poverty line. Indiana’s utility, NIPSCO, also offers a hardship program and a discount program. NIPSCO spokesperson Kathleen Szot confirmed to ThinkProgress that Young was on some form of assistance, though she did not specify which kind.
Szot also told ThinkProgress that the utility does “not disconnect service to customers enrolled in payment assistance programs from December 1 to March 15.” But she also said Young’s service was terminated in March 2013 for “nonpayment.” A spokesperson for the Township Trustee’s office also stressed that the Salvation Army and Catholic Family Charities are also available to help families afford heat.
An average Indiana house spends $530 on heat between November and March. That’s already more than the assistance provided, but experts predicted that an event like the Polar Vortex — combined with the devastating cuts that have reduced the amount of LIHEAP assistance available — could push those on heating assistance to the limits of their budgets.
While Indiana was not hugely impacted by LIHEAP cuts, Andre Young’s story serves as a cautionary tale. About 20 million people in the U.S. are on LIHEAP. But with the assistance dwindling, more are likely to take desperate, sometimes dangerous, measures to keep themselves warm. Measures like using a propane space heater.
It’s something that National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association’s executive director Mark Wolfe considered before the polar vortex began, when he warned, “People do die.”
This piece has been updated with a statement from Indiana’s utility, NIPSCO.